Mr Turner might have been conceived as a celebration of one of history’s most talented seascape painters. But the picture that actually emerges is of a man in desperate need of the beauty his paintings could only reflect.
Mr Turner is the award-winning creation of Mike Leigh. The writer/director leapt to general fame with his 2004 production of Vera Drake, the story of a 1950s housewife who is jailed for her role in arranging illegal abortions. This time around Leigh has taken as his subject the famed Victorian painter William Turner. In the lead is Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, The King’s Speech, Sweeney Todd), who turns in a defining performance that reveals there is as much to dislike about Turner as there is to admire.
The film paints the picture of a man of deep sensibilities who is capable of inspiring art but who also deserts his wife, denies his two daughters, and keeps two mistresses, one of whom is his housekeeper and cousin. While he rides high on the acclaim of the Royal Art Society he is a harsh critic and a stone heart towards his friends. When tragedy strikes his answer is to withdraw into his art, much the same as he has always done – and those who are able to appreciate his unique talents and character are free to love him.
Mr Turner feels as though it was supposed to be an honest appraisal of the man behind the masterpieces, admitting his faults but commending his greatness of heart. Reflecting on this ‘radical, revolutionary painter’, Leigh comments:
“I felt there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world.”
The script certainly encourages the viewer to look beyond Turner’s failings and consider his contributions. Early on he’s found singing the lyrics of a popular period song – “Remember me, but forget my fate…” – and even though his second lover doesn’t know his real name, she reflects:
“I don’t know you Mr Mallard and I think there are things about you that are beyond my understanding. But I think you are a man of fine …spirit.”
And perhaps this is what Leigh wants us to walk away with, the acceptance that though artists like Turner can be hard to understand, even objectionable, their greatness of spirit, often visible through their art, must earn our admiration. But this case of special pleading fails to convince.
Turner grunts and grates his way through the film with his eyes fixed on those things that give him pleasure. The only thing that separates him from today’s unfaithful husband or self-centred artist is… success. And are his paintings enough excuse for his life? Jesus seemed to think not. Quite apart from justifying him, Jesus said it is a man’s everyday actions that convey the spiritual truth:
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
Acting the part, Spall describes himself as a gargoyle on the outside. If Mr Turner is an accurate representation of the artist’s life then it seems he was one on the inside as well. And if celebrated exhibitions of his art, public adoration and the most beautifully crafted films can’t change that, then we’d best consider how we might get our own canvases clean.
DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission Films
RELEASE DATE: December 26